Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 5.1.6: The Time Tunnel

Eye Of The Needle

Star Trek Eye Of The Needle

“Practically microscopic is right, Ensign.”
“Captain, I just… I’m gonna have to report this to space HR.”
“HOW WILL YOU FIT YOUR COMPLAINT THROUGH THAT TINY HOLE?”

Ah. Star Trek reaching back into its own past.  Where have I seen that before?

To do the same myself, however, allow me to nod to my point from last time that the sixth episode slot of each Star Trek series thus far has focused upon how the artifacts of the franchise’s past can operate in its present. “Eye of the Needle” is no different in this regard. Where it is different is in it actually being actually rather good.

Get Lonely

Since I’m a creature capable of almost infinite contrarianism, however, I’m going to start off with a problem. Which, in my defence, is exactly what the episode does too. You may recall that “The Cloud” ended with Voyager in a fairly uncomfortable position, with no small portion of its reserve power gone. Replicator rations were limited even before all that energy got burned up first injuring and then saving the spaceborne entity, and things had only gotten worse since. And yet somehow between episodes this has stopped being a concern, with Janeway blithely making use of her replicator so that her guest can have a tasty drink whilst they chat. The implication is that Neelix’s lead on a new power supply has paid off, but this isn’t even mentioned in the episode, never mind shown.

This isn’t simple nitpicking.  When the creators of the show were thinking about how to ensure Voyager would offer something different from what we’d seen before, they came up with two ideas: a mixed Federation/Maquis crew, and a ship lost decades from home and struggling to keep the lights on. The former has barely been mentioned since the second episode, however, and now it seems the writers think the best way to deal with this ship’s unique problems is to solve them off-screen. As our sixth episode begins, it increasingly feels like Voyager actively wants to undermine its own strengths.

In truth, though, that’s not so much a criticism of “Eye of the Needle” as it is confirmation that “The Cloud” needed further work. And this episode certainly finds something more interesting to consider than a power crisis. In many ways, this is the very first Voyager episode. By that I mean this is the first episode that actually offers a complete example of what the show is supposed to be on a weekly basis. Almost every one of the plots for the first five episodes could have been a Next Generation episode with only minimal changes (and not even that in the case of “Time And Again”). Give the ship a way home at the end of “Caretaker”, find some reason for the Enterprise-D to need something from a gas cloud; most of what we’ve seen this ship do has been essentially generic. The closest thing we’ve had to an episode only Voyager could do is “Parallax”, and even that could have featured in the older show with some reworking regarding why two very different officers were both vying for the same position.

Not this time though. Whilst “Parallax” framed Voyager’s predicament as one of crew shortages and “The Cloud” as a issue of command challenges and battery power, “Eye Of The Needle” considers the long-term implications of being stuck in the Delta Quadrant. There’s a sense of the passage of time that hasn’t really been there before. It’s not unreasonable that we’ve only just got to this, of course. The psychological effects of being so far from home would take a little while to develop, after all. Besides that, I argued in my post on “The Cloud” that that episode was the real start of Voyager’s journey. It makes perfect sense to wait until the following episode before exploring the mental health consequences of the predicament this crew has found themselves in.

(This mitigates still further the decision to drop the power crisis Voyager was suffering from at the end of “The Cloud”. I still don’t think we can forgive the move entirely, however. You can’t impress with a crew’s willingness to do the right thing no matter the consequences if those consequences evaporate at the end of every episode.)

There’s an atmosphere of tiredness and loneliness driving everything forward here. To the Enterprise-D this foot-wide wormhole aperture would be a minor diversion at best. The only way I can see how TNG might have used this plot would have been from the exact opposite direction, with Picard’s crew being hailed by a Romulan ship claiming to be lost in the Delta Quadrant and having to decide how far they could trust them. That might have made for a pretty interesting episode, actually, but it clearly would have been something very different to what we have here. A mission of mercy rather than desperation. The same structure, viewed from the opposite direction.

For really the first time, then, Voyager is giving us not a reshuffling of The Next Generation, but an inversion. The same structure, but from precisely the opposite direction.

The Sound Of His Voice

This anti-parallel motif is everywhere here. It’s most obvious in the relationship between Captain Janeway and Dr R’Mor. They’re not just talking to each other from either end of a wormhole. They’re reaching through it along opposite vectors, too. They don’t realise that in the process they’re travelling through time as well as space, granted. But just because you don’t know you’re doing something doesn’t mean it isn’t what you’re wanting to do.

It’s entirely obvious that Janeway, like most of the crew (we’ll come to the honourable exceptions later) is desperately trying to grab onto the past. This would remain entirely obvious without the shot of her looking longingly at her husband (or, equally plausibly, her dog), and it would still be entirely obvious were it not the whole show’s mission statement. Our captain is fervently hoping for a return to the way things used to be. So that’s exactly what she gets. A wormhole that functions not just as a tunnel into her own history, but the franchise’s as well.

I don’t mean this in the sense of the era in which previous shows were set.  None actually were, after all; Dr R’Mor’s secret mission takes place more than a decade before Picard set foot on the Enterprise-D. I’m talking about a return to previous narrative props. There’s no Kazons or Vidians here; the closest thing this episode has to an alien antagonist is the Romulan Senate. And even that body’s suspicion is in some sense outdated, just like R’Mor’s. Over on Deep Space Nine at this point the Romulans have become (admittedly uneasy) allies of the Federation, even gifting them a cloaking device to aid in sounding out the Dominion. If nothing else, the recent discovery of the Bajoran wormhole would make a Federation ship claiming to be in the Delta quadrant at least a little less implausible in Janeway’s time than R’Mor’s.

Like “Q-Less”, then, this episode is drawing on the franchise’s past. “Eye of the Needle” does a far better job of it, though, and not just because Q isn’t gurning his way around the Delta Quadrant. Much as I defended DS9’s decision to use Vash to link the franchise’s past and future, R’Mor does very much the same thing far more successfully. For a start, he is familiar only in the general rather than specific sense. In some ways he’s something entirely new. He represents a part of Romulan culture we’ve not really seen before – a guy with no interest or real stake in the ideological conflict with the Federation, working outside both government and the military. R’Mor is ultimately just some bloke who wants to do his job and live his life. Giving us a new character from an unexplored area of an established civilisation seems a more imaginative way of examining the franchise’s past than does dragging a recurring character back on deck. It’s surely not irrelevant that Voyager so totally trounces DS9‘s approach here that the latter show brazenly recycles “The Eye of the Needle” in its sixth season.

(Also, let’s not miss the fact that R’Mor’s arrival from twenty years in our heroes’ past means that this is effectively an episode of Star Trek: The Previous Generation. That’s pretty damn funny.)

It’s not just R’Mor’s unusual position that makes him a good fit here, though. While Voyager is reaching out for the past, the Romulan doctor is just as focused on the future. A future where his research will benefit the Empire, sure, but more importantly one in which he will get to meet his daughter for the first time. We’re sympathetic to him almost immediately. The few moments in which Janeway and he bond over a shaky subspace signal over missing their respective loved ones are some of the best the show has managed to date. Janeway wants to return to her past life with her husband. R’Mor wants to arrive in a future in which he can see his daughter. In both cases, they want this so badly that they overshoot their target.

R’Mor’s also just a thoroughly solid bloke who it’s a pleasure to get to know. Learning he died four years before the crew even met him is a genuine gut punch, which given how little we knew of him is rather impressive. I also appreciate the episode not going for the obvious angles. It would have been easy to have R’Mor turn out to be playing Janeway, or for the Romulan Senate to end up ruining everything. What we get instead is far less cynical and far more interesting.

(I suspect actually that the real reason Janeway won’t go for the “transport into the past” idea isn’t that the time line would be immediately polluted – they could just get hold of a ship and buzz around at near light speed for twenty years and let relativity do their work for them – but that they’ve no intention of letting the Romulan Empire get hold of several dozen Starfleet officers with full knowledge of the next two decades of galactic developments. I guess this isn’t mentioned at the briefing out of simple politeness, which I find rather sweet).

You Can Never Go Home Again

To return to this idea of overshooting, it might be tempting to see the episode as pushing some pat moral about the importance of living in the now. Fortunately, Torres shows up to prevent us going down so well-travelled a space-lane. She and Kim come at each their image of the Alpha Quadrant on opposite headings. Torres has no obvious reason to actually want to get to Federation space. As she says, she’s in contact with neither of her parents, and all her friends are either on Voyager with her, or dead. Plus, with the ship literally quadrillions of miles from the Demilitarized Zone, her responsibility to a hopeless, unending guerrilla war against a brutal enemy has disappeared entirely. She’d also got a much cooler engine room to play around in now.  Frankly, pretty much everything about Torres’ life seems better than it was a few months ago.

In other words, if there was anyone here who the show could show to be living in the moment, it’s her. And yet she doesn’t actually seem happy. She’s clearly delighted to figure out there’s a chance to get everyone back to the Alpha Quadrant. What’s going on is clearly more complicated than can be summarised in a quote on a motivational poster.

Actually though, since we’re on this subject, there’s a wrinkle here. As with the sudden disappearance of the ship’s power issues, the benefits to the episode of having Torres admit to having no specific reason for returning to the Alpha Quadrant highlights a larger problem. It’s just being taken as read that the Maquis crew share the same mission goals as their more numerous Federation counterparts. There’s plenty of reasons to question this position, however. The very fact these people signed up for their one-sided war with the Cardassians suggests they weren’t happy in the Alpha Quadrant; not any more, at least. They may be desperate to get back to their fight, but either way whatever past they might want to get back to can’t be found at the end of Voyager’s journey.  Paris meanwhile has spent years in a jail and has a father who loathes him. Even if he does find his sentence commuted in exchange for his help in tracking down Chakotay’s vessel (which is far from a lock; Starfleet might decide he was basically useless), he has no life to pick back up when he returns. All he has to look forward to is the distinct possibility that he’ll have to relinquish the helm of the starship, a job he clearly once put a phenomenal amount of effort into preparing for.

Whilst the show is finally starting to make use of its central concept, then, and whilst this episode is the first time in almost a month that anyone has said the word “Maquis” on screen, I’m still left with the impression that no-one has put full thought into what the dimensions of this set-up actually are. Simply put, not everyone is going to be happy to get to Earth. Speaking of which…

Bedside Manners

We’ll finish up with the Doctor. Back to the action first, though. The Doctor gives us one more instance of approaching something from opposite directions, as Janeway fields complaints both about how he’s treated by the crew and vice versa.

The specifics of Kes and Janeway’s disagreement on the morality of reprogramming the Doctor is kind of difficult for me to get into. I can’t decide whether it tracks onto anything relevant to the real world, and what I could say about it if it does. On one level, discussions of whether it’s acceptable to reprogram a programmed life-form once it’s been allowed to start running doesn’t particularly interest me. We don’t have such things, we might never have such things, and Kes’ argument that because the Doctor reacts like a person he is a person seems like a rather simplistic way to consider technology that hundreds of people spent years of their lives ensuring specifically aped humanity. Does their success mean the Doctor is alive? Or just that they’ve pulled off a magic trick astonishingly well? At what point does the trick in question become creating new life, anyway? Do we have to hand a National Insurance card to every AI that passes the Turing Test?

But there is another way to view this, which is to argue that what Janeway and her officers are considering amounts to trying to force someone to behave in a way deemed more socially acceptable, to the point of wanting their thought processes rewritten. That’s an idea that I suspect would have no small relevance for the neurodiverse. Once I note that, however, I can’t go any further. I don’t identify as neurodiverse myself, and I’m nervous about offending anyone who does. I don’t want to accidentally imply someone being grumpy and stand-offish is in itself a reason to speculate on whether they’re neurodiverse, or to carelessly playing around with the question of which aspects of the Doctor’s behaviour is chosen, which is ingrained, and where that difference lies and what matters about it in any case. If I have any neurodiverse readers who’d feel comfortable commenting on this here (or via email) I’d be delighted to hear from you, but for now my ignorance is simply too great for me to do anything but note the possibility of a link. Certainly though to the extent there’s a metaphor at all here, I’m certain it comes down in favour of Kes’ approach.

Either way, however, the idea that successfully getting home means death for the Doctor is a powerful one. So too is the realisation that the longer the mission takes, the further he will move from his factory settings, and hence the greater that eventual loss will be. Like Dr R’Mor, our Doctor will not get to see how finally getting home will affect this crew. For him, all roads lead to disaster.

Like the episode itself, then, we end on a sad note. As Janeway realises, though, there’s nothing to be done but absorb that truth and then carry on. So let’s do just that. “Eye of the Needle” doesn’t really reach the heights of Trek’s classic episodes – it’s position at the head of the pack below says more about how poorly-served a slot this has been in general – but it’s both solid on its own merits and the best evidence yet that this show can be more than a reshuffling of past glories. After sleep walking through most of its opening episodes, Voyager feels like it’s finally waking up.

Ordering

1. Eye Of The Needle

2. Lonely Among Us

3. The Survivor

4. Q-Less

5. Mudd’s Women

GS Blogger: Ric Crossman

 

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